Thinking about dogs tonight, so I’m reposting this bit from 2008:
In most dog-related things, I was a fairly indulgent dad. But having my four-leggers roll in dead stuff, or go off into the brush and bring back something rotten, I had a hard time with that.
Tito was especially bad about it.
One summer day we were out along Varmint Creek hiking. I have this thing I sometimes do – I think of it as my super power – I hike and read at the same time. The subconscious Guardian Idiot that resides in all our heads, in my case has terrific peripheral vision, and I’m able to read and navigate along a trail, even rough mountain terrain, at the same time. I never fall down, I never walk into trees, I never even stumble.
On occasion, I look up from my book and find myself stopped in the trail, just standing there. I glance around to find out what my Guardian Idiot wants to bring to my full conscious attention.
This time, it was a dripping Tito coming out of the creek, head held high with a prize. It was some sort of animal hide, I could tell, but it was so putrid I couldn’t even guess the species. Tito had pulled it off a rank waterlogged carcass snagged up under some streamside brush. It was so far gone that gelatinous bits of it were dropping off as he carried it – if there was a Jell-O flavor of Dead, it would look like what he was carrying.
“Oh, Tito, shit! Drop that, it’s disgusting! Ranger, get away from it!” Fists in both collars, I dragged the both of them away at top walking speed, vomit poking at the back of my throat the whole time with the thought of that nasty dead thing actually in my dog’s mouth.
It happened several more times.
And I finally realized: Tito didn’t mind having a disgusting dead thing in his mouth. He liked it. He was even proud of it. And Ranger seemed jealous, looking at me like “Where’s MY dead thing??”
Eventually I came to understand that dogs have a canine ethic in their heads about dead things, and not a human one. I understood that they’re NOT US. It was an emancipation for both of us – I stopped trying to force them into a human mold, at least as far as dead things were concerned, and began to take pleasure in their pleasure in such doggie activities, however disgusting they sometimes seemed to me. And the dogs stopped having to deal with me handing out these mystifying, arbitrary punishments.
After the light bulb went off over my head, Tito would trot out of the brush with a rotten deer leg, or the half-decayed skull of some small animal, and I’d say “Oooh, Tito’s found a Good Dead Thing! Oh, boy, that looks sooooo good. Nom nom nom!” And Tito would happily lie in the brush and gnaw on it, crunching the bones like a tiger and glancing smugly up at Ranger and I all the while.
If I was set on finishing the hike and wouldn’t wait for him, he’d gnaw on it for a bit, then trot past and ahead of me a ways and find another spot to rest and gnaw. I’d catch up to and pass him, and he’d do it again, leapfrogging ahead several times until he’d finished the thing.
There was a lesson in canine memory in all this too.
If we were in the first few minutes of the trail and Tito came out with a deer leg, I’d take it away from him. I wanted us to enjoy the hike together, and not have him preoccupied with edible toys. But if I left it on the ground anywhere, he would go back and get it, so I had to hook it over the branch of one of the scrawny mountain trees.
I always explained it to him. “We’ll come back for it, buddy. It’s your Good Dead Thing. It’ll be here when we come back, okay?”
After a few times of this, Tito seemed wholly content to change gears and just go on the hike. There were no worried, longing looks, no whining. He turned instantly to the trail and trotted as jauntily as ever. But he never once forgot where the Good Dead Thing was. When we came back to that spot, at the end of the hike or even several days later, he went right to the tree and looked up at it, then back at me. And I, keeping my promise, got it down for him and handed it over. “Here it is. Tito’s Good Dead Thing! Oooh, yummy!”
If you say you’re going to do something, you do it.
The reason is not only that your dog has no defense against the way you treat him, and so to treat him meanly turns you into an instant bullying a-hole, but that … well, you want to grow the line of communication between the two of you.
Your dog watches you – his Alpha Wolf – all the time. He WANTS to know what’s going on in your head. He wants to understand what you’re doing and saying, so he can keep you happy with him. If you say or do something that seems comprehensible in dog terms, he remembers it and learns a new connection with you. But if you capriciously change it the next time, or every time, you confuse him and wipe out that connection. You destroy the closeness of understanding in your friendship.
And there’s even a third reason, it seems to me, a broader one that recognizes the deal that humans and dogs worked out all those tens of thousands of years ago. Dogs got food and companionship, a warm fire and some measure of safety, we humans got work partners, protectors and play friends. But then one side started to cheat.
We started to breed them into tortured little forms that are crippled and stupid, turning some of them into toys. We began to blithely trim their ears, their tails, other more sensitive bits, and think nothing of it. We started to order their lives and deaths for our own convenience and none of theirs. We began to choose who would live and die for the frivolous reasons of style and fashion, and even worse, began to throw them away when we grew tired of them.
My feeling is that if stupid, uncaring people are going to treat dogs-as-a-species like this, every compassionate dog owner will at least play fair with his own specific canine friends. You keep your promises. You treat them fair. You keep the leash loose. To do less is to tacitly agree that dogs are nothing but possessions, and that anything anybody wants to do to them is okay.
One day, though, Tito pushed the bargain from the dog side.
We were out hiking, again along Varmint Creek, and he spotted a herd of deer off in the distance. Whoosh, he was off!
I yelled, I screamed, I threatened, but he’d gone conveniently and completely deaf. All the deer heads came up and they went bounding away, crashing through the manzanita and rabbit brush like Olympic sprinters, Tito hot on their trail.
Straight for the highway. Oh, crap.
I cut the hike short, and Ranger and I hurried back to the truck. I peeled out, throwing road gravel behind me in a generous rooster tail as I roared up the long s-curve of the dirt road to where it connected with the highway. I rushed back up the highway toward where Tito would have come out, and when I got there I stopped and whistled my power whistle, which both Tito and Ranger knew and which I was pretty sure carried a quarter-mile or so.
I motored up to the turnaround and cut back towards town, cruising slow with the windows rolled down, power-whistling out both sides of the truck and hoping I wasn’t luring Tito out into the sparse but fast traffic.
I did this for about 15 minutes, then decided to run back home, to see if anybody had called. Tito’s collar had my phone number on it. I waited a bit by the phone, hoping for a call. Back in the truck, I drove out to the highway again and cruised both sides of it, over and over.
Back home to check messages. Nothing. Back to the highway. Nothing. Shit.
I went home, dejected. Tito and I were both new enough to each other that I wasn’t sure what he would do if he lost me.
Another hour went by, but the phone finally rang. A young woman’s voice with a hint of censure in it: “We found your dog out on the highway, eating a road-killed deer.”
I laughed out loud, both to know he was okay and at how funny it was, and I’m not sure she liked hearing it. They gave me directions, and I drove straight over. Tito was happy to see me, but he’d also been busy charming the couple who’d picked him up. “What a neat dog!” they said, and they seemed to regret letting him go.
“The worst thing about this,” I said as I left, “is that now I’m not sure I’m ever going to be able to stop him running off. Tito knows now that deer are not only fun to chase, but they taste good too.”